The Power of Prayer

The Power of Prayer

Since Hannah was a little girl, she dreamt of becoming a mother. She longed to nurture, and fall in love with children of her own. When she married Elchanah she was sure her greatest wish would soon become a reality. But year after year, she was unable to conceive, while Elchanah’s other wife, Peninah, bore him many children. She was so deeply upset that she didn’t want to eat, and she didn’t want to discuss it. Elchanah knew he couldn’t take away her pain, but he could remind her of their love. He could help her feel comfortable enough to express all she was feeling inside.

Time passed, until one day she was ready. She rose, ate, and went to the temple. With bitterness and sadness in her heart, she began to pray.

But it wasn’t just any prayer. Words flew from her lips, erupting from her soul. It was the prayer of a woman felt lost and distraught, who was trying to find herself in a life so different than the one she imagined, with a fate over which she had so little control, a fate she did not deserve.

Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits refers to prayer as “a cry of [our] most needful needs,” a time when we “tumble into the presence of God.” It is a complete letting go, a baring of the soul.

After a tragedy, when we say “you’re in our prayers,” we are expressing an awakening. Unafraid to face the reality of the situation, we so distraught and heartbroken that like Hannah, we throw ourselves into the presence of God. We offer a “cry of our most needful needs” that you find comfort, that violence ends, and that nothing like this happens in the future.

In a Midrash, Rabbi Yochanan uses 10 words to describe prayer: cry, lament, groan, sing, encounter, trouble, call, fall, beseech and supplicate.”[1] At this moment, Hannah felt all ten. She was so wrapped up in prayer that she didn’t even notice Eli the priest watching her. Having never seen someone pray with such fervor, Eli was convinced she was a drunkard. When Hannah corrected him, he blessed her. He was not the only one.

Throughout the Bible, there are so many words of prayer, mostly uttered by men. The sages single out Hannah’s payer as the model and prototype of all prayers to come.”

Hannah’s prayer isn’t memorable because she got what she asked God for. It is memorable because it was humble and sincere. It is memorable because she didn’t just say the words of prayer; they reverberated throughout her being.

During temple times, before the priest entered the holy of holies, he bathed his feet in a pool of water. It was a symbol of cleanliness and respect, but the water had other significance as well. As he washed his feet, there was his reflection staring back at him, through the water. I imagine that in this moment, his gaze met his eyes, and he took a moment to reflect on where he was, and who he was. Only then could his prayer begin.

Hannah’s prayer is memorable because, like the priests, it began with deep internal reflection. And through prayer, Hannah was transformed. Hannah entered prayer with bitterness in her heart. Through her prayer, she received life.

On Rosh Hashanah we read this story as a reminder. During these days when we spend so much time in temple offering words of prayer, we seek inspiration. We reflect on the world as it is and we call to God for help. But we remember that prayer is more than asking God to fulfill our individual desires—a reminder that prayer is about more than Hebrew words written millennia ago. That prayer can be spontaneous and meaningful as well as being rooted in tradition and shared history.

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah, which means “to intercede,” or “to judge.” When we confront things in our life or world that we wish to change, we intercede, and call to God for help, just like Hannah. But our prayer doesn’t end there. The word “to pray,” l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb, acting upon itself. In prayer, we do not judge others. Rather, we judge ourselves, individually and communally, thinking of how, as partners with God, we can change our world.

Just moments ago we offered the words of Avinu Malkeinu. In this prayer we plead with God to hear us and have compassion on us, to halt the onslaught of sickness and violence and hunger, to halt those who cause pain and terror, and to save us through acts of justice and love.”

With terrorist attack after terrorist attack, shooting after shooting, illness after illness, these words are justified. They are heartfelt. They reflect the state of our world and our hearts.

And yet, when we offer these words of prayer, we do not expect God to end all of our conflicts. We do not expect that by uttering these words we will convince God to end violence and illness, hunger and terror. We offer these words for another reason.

There is a story that when a fire broke out in the village, all the people would drop everything they were doing and band together to carry the water from the well to put out the blaze.  Everyone would show up with their bucket, and form a chain bringing the water as quickly as they could to extinguish the devouring flames.

One day, one of the villagers was visiting the big city and all of a sudden he heard the ringing of bells and the blasts of the shofar.  He had to cover ears from the deafening sounds.  “What’s that noise?” He asked a passerby. Smiling at the villager’s simple ways, she replied, “Whenever there is a fire, we ring the bells and blow shofar to put out the fire.”

When this man returned to the village, he could hardly wait to tell everyone what he had learned. He met with the elders of the village and told them all about his amazing discovery. “From now on,” they declared, “whenever there is a fire, we too will blow the shofar, like in the big city and this is how we will put out the fire!”

The next time there was a fire, the town elders started blowing their horns and ringing their bells. But the fire got worse. Before long, half the village was gone.

When the villager returned to the big city, he asked the people, “How come when we blew the shofar, the fire didn’t go out?”

“Do you really think that the bells and horns put out the blaze?” they replied. “They only alert the people that there is a fire. It is up to every one of us to extinguish it.” [2]

“There are so many fires raging and destroying our world,” writes Rabbi Mark Soloway, “we cannot leave all the work of putting them out to others.”[3]

The call of the shofar is not an end in itself. Our utterance of Avinu Malkeinu will not transform our world into a place void of violence, hunger and illness. Instead, it awakens us to reality of our world, and calls us to respond.

We lift up our voices in words of petition and gratitude, and as we do, we come to a startling realization. During our most heartfelt prayers, when the words on the page come alive with meaning and relevance, we are not just praying to God. We are also praying to ourselves. Glancing in the pool of self-reflection, we find that the longings of the heart are too important to ignore. As we ask God to forgive us, we work to forgive ourselves and others. As we pray for peace and civility, we vow to dismantle our biases and to treat everyone with respect. As we pray for a meaningful new year, we consider ways to make that aspiration a reality.

At times we are like Hannah, connecting to prayer by the words of the heart- the deep longings and expressions we feel from within, and asking God for intervention. And other times, we find that the words on the page call out to us, like the blast of the shofar, prodding us to act. At other times, our prayers don’t know where to begin. We turn to the words of the page, which despite being millennia old, express our thoughts more clearly than we are able to ourselves. We gaze into the reflective pool of liturgy and find something there that we didn’t even know we needed.

Just a few months ago, I walked into a hospital room, to find a man in his 70’s or 80’s on a gurney. A woman of around the same age sat beside him. I introduced myself. “I’m Rabbi Cassi and I heard you were here. Would you like me to visit with you for a few minutes?” “You’re a rabbi?” came the shocked woman’s voice. “Yes, I am. Would you like to talk or pray?” Before they could get out a single word, the man and women broke out in sobs. “A rabbi came to visit us, Al! A rabbi!”

This was the strongest reaction I had ever received for walking into a room!

Eva, the woman, spoke up. “You have to understand. Al, he’s a Jewish man. He’s always been a Jewish man. He loves being Jewish; the prayers, the people. But when he proposed to me, the rabbi took him aside and said, “Al! No good Jewish boy marries a black shiksa.” That’s what he called me. He said that if Al married me, then he was not welcome. None of us were. That’s the last time we ever spoke to a rabbi.”

Al nodded, still sobbing. We spoke for a long time about faith and family, health and hope. In the middle of the discussion, two women entered the room. When I introduced myself, their jaws dropped. They were Al and Eva’s daughters. We began to pray, first in English.

Then one of the daughters asked, “Can we pray in Hebrew? Dad, wouldn’t you like that?” He nodded.

We held hands and I began “Misheberach avoteinu” – the daughters raised the voices, desperate to sing along. Eva swayed, eyes closed. Al mouthed the words, staring at me intently.

mkor habracha v’imoteinu…”

Not a single eye was dry as we came to the end of the prayer. When it was over an “Amen” louder than I thought five voices could muster, reverberated through the calls, as it erupted from our souls.

Much like Hannah, we threw ourselves into prayer. We tumbled and gasped as we allowed the words to emerge from our depths. And yet, there was more.

You see, Al had prayed for his entire life. He had conversations with God nearly every single day. But something had been missing. He was still longing.

Al smiled. “I remember the words,” he said. “Those words I remember them as if they were yesterday, though they feel like a lifetime ago. I feel so connected.”

The words of the prayerbook, despite their age—or perhaps because of it, were the words of his heart. As he spoke the Misheberach, he did so feeling the embrace of millions of Jews who had uttered these words before him. At this emotional time of grave illness, he felt connected to his people once again. And he had hope for the future.

The word tefilah means “to intercede” and “to judge,” but it has another meaning as well, “to hope.” We intercede, perhaps in ways we aren’t even aware. We judge ourselves and feel called to act. And then we emerge from prayer, feeling hopeful of the possibilities ahead.

We spend the day High Holy Days basking in our reflection, and we do not always like what we see. War and famine, poverty, and violence. As we offer these prayers, we know our community has mourners and people struggling with illness or abuse, people going through bitter divorced, and people hurting for other reasons. Perhaps we are, too.

We call out to God, offering our prayers of intercession, praying for a better future for us and our fellow human beings. When we are ready, like Hannah, we offer words of prayer which not only express our soul’s longing but also transforms us. We hear the call of the shofar, and we recognize that we have work to do. And then at the end of the day, as we work to create the world in which we live, we see a glimmer of hope. Doors we once thought we closed now are slowly opening. Progress is being made. Like Al and his family, we express our gratitude to God for the immense good in our world: the babies being born, people falling in love, the way that people are able to come together at moments of joy and challenge, the progress we’ve made, and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Each of us comes to Rosh Hashanah services for a reason. We come to see family and friends. We come to be with a larger Jewish community. We come to connect with ourselves, with God, and one another. “A person reaches in three directions,” teaches Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. “inward, to oneself; up, to God; out, to others. The miracle of life is that in truly reaching in any one direction, one embraces all three.”

Throughout the High Holy Day season, we will pray. At times prayer may roll off our lips, as we tumble into the presence of God. At times, we may have trouble connecting. At times we may call out for intercession, or be involved in the challenging and rewarding word of self-scrutiny and discovery.

At times our prayer will be spontaneous and unique. At times it will be expressed through the heartfelt expressions of our sages. We may connect to prayer through music, art or poetry, liturgy, or text studies within our prayer book. No matter the mode through which we express our prayers, I hope that we leave here, transformed, connected, and above all, full of hope.


[1] Midrash Rabbah Vaetchanan 20

[2] Source unknown

[3] Making prayer real